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Jack Lynch, Editor
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May 20, 2010
A Visit to Tangier Island
A recent series of articles in the Frederick News-Post highlighted the great educational activities of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on various islands for local youth, and coincided with my own return to Tangier Island after nearly two years since my first visit there in the Fall of 2008.
I thought that I would write about the experience a bit, as it portrays a landscape and way of life unique to the region, and which is dying partly due to the impacts of those of us living in the upper reaches of riverine systems in a five state region around Maryland. We are the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay, and the islanders are the watershed of a life of farming the Bay.
As I recently told Congressman Roscoe Bartlett in a discussion about supporting the Cardin bill for the Chesapeake Bay, the farmer of the soil has great control over his land, but the farmers of the Bay cannot really control their waters. We do that.
To reach a place like Tangier Island, or even the closer Smith Island, is a process of shedding the layers of expectation of life on the mainland, first by stepping on a boat to make the trip across the waters of the Bay to reach it, then by letting go of the dependence on the auto, or the expectation that there will be something open after ten o’clock in the evening, or that anything exists a couple miles farther down a road. As the layers of mainland life slough off, you are like a newly molted crab with your sunburn and renewed association with the water.
If you want something, it may not be available unless you’ve managed to bring it with you. Otherwise, it will likely cost a bit more, like milk at a couple dollars more per gallon, or gasoline the same, and only available at the docks.
The boat trip lulls you into a change too, gazing across the broad waters for an hour or more, peering down into their depths, sensing both that depth and shallowness, seeing the underwater vegetation closer to the harbors and land masses. A fish jumps, osprey man the buoys, and an occasional bright silver fish bobs along as seagulls eat it, left over from a fishing boat’s catch. Various ducks and birds are seen flying the distances of miles across the bay waters from place to place.
Everything comes in by boat, food, mail, people, and out goes the catch of soft shell crabs packed in boxes with ice, mail, and people. Life on an island is about tenuous connection to the shore life, by boat, or electric cable, radio waves, and today, many jobs, schools, futures and new lives.
There are two lives on the island, though our hostess from Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House wore a t-shirt with the words “I’m on Island Time” on it, there are two time sequences, the first, when the tourist boat is in, the second, once the tourist boat is gone, and the feeling changes a bit.
The couple of hours that the day trippers spend on the island are sort of the time for putting up with the crowds, the banal questions about ordinary things, the expressions of disbelief that anyone could live this way, how does it feel?
It relaxes once the day folks ferry off, the ones who stay overnight glimpse the easier, more ordinary experience of time on the island community. They still wander around, ask questions, look a bit uncertain at the natives as they scooter by in golf carts, but they’re a bit more acceptable, taking the time to feel the presence of the real island, participating in the pace of it rather than dropping in with a magnifying glass as if life there were merely a unique specimen in an experiment.
It's no experiment after twelve generations, many of these ancestral roots run far deeper than the ones the visitors command at home. They came to stay soon after Captain John Smith made his tour of the island and declared it a goodly place.
But the island is smaller, as is slightly, it's population. The edges, the great marshlands that nurture the bay's life, they are eroding, sinking, falling victim to the rising tides of global warming. Likely their fate is sealed. At the island museum they have a colored glass window that shows the shinking land mass over recent time, it is pictured below.
The salt marshes are three quarters of the island's land mass. They are criscrossed with narrow paths and bridges, bulwarked with strips of docks and homes.
The ways of the water are dying out, the bounty of the Bay is falling off and being restricted, our last hunter gatherers are moving off the island, taking jobs on tugboats which keep them away from home for long times. Though there are still workboats and soft shells to harvest, the tourists are becoming all that's left to those who hang on and try to live on the island.
In the old times, the men gathered in the Double Six, pictured below, at 3 AM to meet and supply themselves with sandwiches for the day's fishing.
Today, one or two people get up and move to the shedding docks in the middle of the night, only because the soft crabs must be culled and iced within a couple hours so they don't harden. The bay still supplies three-quarters of the world's peeler supply, from local supermarkets, to Asia.
Tangier is a bit of a fishbowl, which can be both good and bad, it means your every move is noted, locals converse, sharing all the gossip about each other, but that's a normal community, just a little bit tighter in space and ability to escape prying eyes. For the visitor, it adds an element of goodwill, and a place where letting the children run free is fairly safe.
Recently, in the news was a case of an islander who shot one of the feral cats. The eyes of the community are upon you, often with good cause. Without a spay and neuter program, the cats tend to overpopulate the island and run stray.
I expect Tangier Island will remain a place set apart but increasingly pulled towards mainland life, the young dispersing to other places, new lives, the fishery eroded away, but something in the generations of life here will remain as long as possible. Something in the human spirit demands a quiet place away from it all, a connection with nature, and a small commuity spirit. It's not for eevryone, thank God!
That's ok, but I'll take Tangier and keep it mine. I'm ready to do my part to help the Bay's waters and its fisheries. We need something more than museums of this lifestyle. We need to wallow in a marsh once in awhile and to catch an eat our own fish from the Bay.
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